Feature: Karen P
Interview by Marc Kets
Karen P is a radio producer, podcast/internet communications pioneer, DJ and writer. Karen established herself at the tender age of 23, as the youngest producer at BBC Radio One, on Gilles Peterson’s weekly ‘Worldwide’ broadcasting phenomenon. She enhanced the original ‘join the dots’ concept of the show, while changing the format, by organising sessions and live events, and introducing established artists whilst continuing to nurture new talents. Under Karen’s watchful eye, the Radio 1 Worldwide show toured the UK and international spots at the Miami Winter Music Conference, Sonar Electronic Festival in Barcelona and Exit in Serbia among many. Always hungry for whatever’s new, Karen has quickly established herself as a global authority on podcasts and “post-broadcast” audio, setting up the groundbreaking projects that underpin the company that takes her name. Karen set up an internet radio station to coincide with the annual Red Bull Music Academy in Seattle in 2005. The station has gone from strength to strength with many of the shows being seen as being essential listening for musical connoisseurs worldwide. From starting off in radio at the age of 18 on a few weeks work experience to initiating and running some of the most forward thinking programming in radio today, Karen has done very well for herself in a relatively short space of time and we, as listeners, are all the better for having her in the world of music.
You were the youngest producer on Radio 1 when you produced Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Show. What was your role and are there any particular highlights from your time on the show?
I started at Radio 1 when I was 18 years old, initially to do a few weeks work experience during university, but ended up staying on as a freelancer, working with John Peel, Jo Whiley, Steve Lamacq etc. After a year or so I moved over to independent production company Somethin’ Else they were looking for someone to work on Gilles show. I was basically a massive fan, and if I could have picked any show to work on at that time it would have been his. It was a pretty tough interview phase, I didn't think I'd got it and when I found out I was over the moon. I was thrown right in the deep end - my first show was a live show from Dingwalls with Spacek, Da Lata and Felix from Basement Jaxx. There's some footage of me holding a clipboard, looking really young and scared. It was an amazing thing to be thrown into. I was really into Somethin’ Else because they made so many brilliant documentaries for the BBC. There was one about James Brown, the Afrobeat documentary and another one on electronica - really forward-thinking stuff. I was 23 when I first produced Gilles, before that I’d been the Assistant Producer for the show when Benji B was producing it. When Benji left to do his show at 1Xtra I stepped into his shoes, which was another massive challenge. It was hard work, but I had a vision for where I wanted the show to go. It was exciting trying new things and seeing them work. I loved the music, the opportunity, it was a great learning curve. There are so many highlights but the first thing that pops into my head is The Roots in the Live Lounge @ Radio 1 . It was a pretty small space for an 11 piece band, but it sounded so warm. They did the show specially for us, and went on to release most of the tracks on B-Sides or their Exclusives album. I met the most amazing people and travelled to places I would have never had the chance to visit. I loved the fact that I could pick all people I'd always wanted to work with, that I got to pull bands together for special collaborations, working at the 'Independent Mix' night at Cargo and starting the Worldwide Awards from scratch. While at Somethin Else I also produced a documentary for Radio 1 on the music scene in Philadelphia. I went to A Touch Of Jazz, Jazzy Jeff's studio and getting a tour around Questlove's fireproofed record room - heaven for a music fan. Every week there was a highlight. I did a couple of sessions with Bjork, one for Medulla at Maida Vale. It was the first time everyone on the album had been in a room together and watching her come in and orchestrate it at the end was incredible.
What do you see the advantages/disadvantages of podcasting?
I could talk about the advantages all day! Podcasts are highly mobile. You can listen to them where, when and how you want. You can use them as DVD extras to pull people into your site, or your music or whatever you're working on. You can put drops and links in to direct traffic where you want. Once you upload a new show they automatically update in your music store. It's cheaper than streaming content and you can add them to podcast directories such as iTunes and attract an audience outside of your audience. There's a downside too. At the moment you can't use music legally but there are imaginative ways around this and to be honest, I think this is what makes them special right now. It's also problematic that you don't have to go to the artists/brand website to download the podcast, so people can download it out of context, or not know key bits of information about the artist.
You took over on World Wide from Benji B, who has since moved on to 1Xtra and role in front of the mic, have you ever considered following this route?
I've always been much more comfortable behind the scenes, although I always want to be able to play music somewhere on the radio. After leaving Gilles' show I really missed being able to play tracks that might not work in a club. I've started a little feature on a show called 'Rhythm Lab' with Tarik Moody & Don Cuco where I pick my tracks of the month. It goes out 12-2am on Minnesota Public Radio and on-line on Giant Step and at http://www.rhythmlabonline.com. I’m also excited to be compiling the next 'Broad Casting' album for Sonar Kollektiv, which will be out at the beginning of next year. A good platform to get some music heard, and there will be plenty of special and exclusive bits.
How important is it to have a show 'on demand'? I'm aware that the majority of Gilles' listeners do so on demand.
It's very important to give listeners the choice to listen to a show as and when they want to. People’s lifestyles are so different to a decade ago. They no longer arrange their lives around a radio or TV schedule, but expect to be able to listen when they want and how they want. We have to recognise this and produce radio that meets the average listener's needs. It’s exciting and the landscape is changing dramatically. Who knows where it will end up?
As a DJ yourself, are there any particular artists at the moment that you feel should be highlighted at the moment?
From the UK - Tunng, Hudson Mohawke and Andreya Trianna. From elsewhere - Muhsinah, Little Dragon, Jose James and Damon Aaron.
When did you set up Karen P Productions? What are the aims of the company? Have there been any highlights thus far?
The company was set up earlier this year. The aim is simple - to produce high quality audio for radio, online or otherwise. Put together an amazing team of producers, writers, engineers to deliver this high quality content. In a short way the company makes and sources high quality content & finds the platforms for it across the world. Be it on the internet or on-line. Highlights so far are all the podcasts we've made. For me fav so far is the Cinematic Orchestra podcast for Ninja Tune. Just being asked to do that was amazing.
Is there any advice that you would give someone who was putting together a show?
The biggest bit of advice is to start with the music. That's the most important bit, especially when editing features etc. I always put the music in first and get the speech to fit the music. For a podcast, make it high quality, so you want to keep it. Make it up to date, relevant, "exclusive" in the sense that it adds unique value that you can't find anywhere else - like a dvd extra. It shouldn't be too long: the best ones - because of a mixture of download time and attention span - tend to be around 30 to 40 minutes. Use sound design, jingles and drops that inform the listener to check other parts of the website and upcoming events.
How did you get involved with the Red Bull Music Academy?
It can be hard to understand what the academy's about so it's probably worth explaining it a little bit. It's an annual music academy that happens in a different city every year. 60 participants are selected from over 2,500 applications and they come to one of two terms. Each day is a mixture of lectures from the likes of Bernard Purdie to young, upcoming producers and DJs like Oh No or Benga, then in the evening the participants head off to the studios. We've got a ridiculously good crew of expert DJs and producers to work with them in the studios. This year it's Om'Mas Keith from Sa-Ra, DJ Zinc, Seattle beatsmith Jake One and Detroit's Todd Osbourne. You couldn't make it up. You can get more information from www.redbullmusicacademy.com. I'd started DJing all over the place and I started meeting these people who worked for the Red Bull Music Academy and they all seemed really on a level. Then people like Amp Fiddler would come onto Gilles' show and talk about how they were off to Cape Town for this Red Bull Music Academy thing. I'd been thinking about what I was going to do next - I was doing my dream job but I'd been there for seven years. Then I got a phone call out of the blue from this guy saying he worked for the academy and was I happy in my job. My boss was sitting behind me so I said I'd call him back, went downstairs and called him back. Two days later I was on my way to Germany to meet up with them and talk about setting up a radio station. I went out to Seattle to the next academy, met all these crazy people from around the world, and set the radio station up from scratch. It opened my eyes. I handed in my notice, did my last WorldWide Awards two years ago and now I've got the best of both worlds. I still do some bits with Gilles and I work for an amazing thing that takes me around the world, meeting some genuinely interesting people.
One of your biggest clients is the RBMA Radio Station, which really seems to be going from strength to strength in recent months, what are your long term and short-term goals for the station?
The station’s great. We’re attracting record numbers and getting great feedback. I think we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing, producing great radio, connecting up with great artists and creating something different. We just want to create innovative, exciting radio and we've got some amazing show on there. We're syndicating the shows worldwide and we're becoming somewhere people go, to experience through their headphones, while they're working.
What are the strengths of the Academy?
Bringing people from all over the world together to experience music in an open-minded way, without anyone telling them what they should be doing. The brilliant thing is that the academy isn’t genre specific. Their mission isn’t to produce the next big thing. They want to invest in artists, nurture their talent and provide an environment where music rules, if only for a few weeks. For some people, it's the first time they've left their countries, and they end up with new friends and musical connections from all over the planet. I'm really privilaged to work on the radio which is a platform for the people who come through the academy. We're in Toronto at the moment, creating new content every day, which will be uploaded gradually over coming months. We've had Martyn Ware, who founded Human League and Heaven 17, doing a show that takes us through his musical influences and had Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dudley Perkins in for an interview which covered making their new album in the LA mountains, talking hummingbirds and why they love making music together. It's also a place where the participants get to experience live radio and where we upload their live sets, mixes and specials.
RBMA RADIO covers quite a lot of ground music-wise, how have you programmed the station and how do you go about getting mixes from the various artists? Is there any set criteria for an artist to do a mix for the station?
The rule is that there are no rules - just high quality. We've got 20 regular hosts from around the world delivering monthly shows. Like with the academy itself, it's a pretty amazing roll-call: Daz-I-Kue from Bugz In The Attic, Osunlade, Soul Jazz Soundsystem, Kirk Degiorgio, Marc Mac and Mark Pritchard. The shows cover all different styles and formats and we've also got mixes from people like Hot Chip, Theo Parrish, Ame and Questlove. It's all giving creative people free reign and a platform to get it heard. It's also a way people who've been through the academy can stay connected. We're open-minded and always on the look-out for new talent. Check www.rbmaradio.com for the complete archive, live stream & podcasts. In fact it's the mixture of archived shows, podcasts & the live stream that makes it special.
How important is it to build up a community when producing / presenting a radio show?
It's really important. Like with the old FM stations, presenters can keep mentioning links to their website or forum. It's increasingly easy for anyone to create their own radio, but just doing it isn't enough. You have to promote it, build up communities and keep your listeners engaged. Obvious things like regularly referencing your website helps do this., as does building up a mailing list and sending out playlists. Club nights help too.
With the way how consumers get to hear new music changing rapidly and seemingly everyone being able to present a show from the comfort of their own living rooms, what do you think separates the great from the ordinary?
Great shows have a two-way relationship with the audience. They stick to their guns and play the music they love - but find ways to extend it out to everyone. Great shows are passionate and popular, and that can be as true of someone operating on a shoestring from their front room as it can be of a major presenter on a mainstream station. For presenters, it's about not being scared of change and not sticking to one thing because it's comfortable, and not being scared to take risks. You should trust your judgement and your taste.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the world of broadcasting?
Be prepared to work hard. Know where you want to go, have an idea of what you and who you like listening to and be open to other peoples advice. Always be learning, you can never know too much. Learning is the key thing and don't let your ego take you to a place where you think you don't need to learn anything more. Learn from everyone around you and keep your ears open. Listen to a lot of radio from lots of different sources. If you do music, listen to Radio 4. If you want to make documentaries, listen to comedy podcasts. Know your medium inside out. And read: there's a great book called 'The Tipping Point' by Malcolm Gladwell. I love Blink too. Both opened my mind.
Having travelled the world, what would you say is a common denominator in music that manages to bring everyone together?
If you love music, you love music. It doesn't matter where you're from. If you love it, it comes naturally - and that's the same whether you're from Portugal or Bulgaria, Puerto Rico or Southend.
Marc Kets, Oct 2007
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